A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Written by: Blade Mast and Candace Chellew
BladeMast@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 6 of 7
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
The guards were taking no chances with their prisoner, keeping her hands chained together even as they slipped those same hands through the leather binding loops attached to the whipping post. If the warrior hadn't been so empty inside, she might have worked up a suitable smirk at their efforts. With her strength, depleted from lack of food though it was, the rusted chains of her manacles would prove little more than a minor annoyance. The leather strips, rotted by age and exposure, were a joke.
But still, she allowed her long body to be stretched to its limits and bound to the post. Resting her cheek against the splintered wood, she watched through empty eyes as the guards gathered the other female Greek slaves to stand approximately fifty yards from her position. The women looked on with wide eyes and stunned, sick expressions. Especially the Amazons, who pushed and bulled their way to the front of the group.
The warrior turned her head back the other way, noticing Gabrielle running to stand beside Gunni, a scroll and quill clenched in her hands. Xena almost dredged up a laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Gabrielle, bard for the deeds of the Warrior Princess, penning a punishment she herself caused. If Xena could have either laughed or cried at that moment, she surely would have done so.
Gabrielle's eyes and nose were red from crying and she kept swiping at both, trying to calm the irritation of swollen membranes. She felt as if she were looking upon the scene from a great distance. She felt a strange sense of detachment from it all. As if the events were happening to another person and she was simply watching a play up on stage. Parchment and quill shook in her trembling hands, her body belying the detachment of her mind. "Won't you please reconsider, Gunni?" she asked in a soft, pleading voice.
"I'm sorry, my child. She broke Balder's law and must be made an example of. This town must know we stand strong on slavery. It is our right as a people. It keeps us strong and whole." He turned from her and lifted his hands toward the steadily growing crowd. "To the good people of Gudvargen. Balder's sacred law has been broken today in the Temple of his worship. This slave," he announced, pointing to Xena, "spat upon your newest sister in Balder, Gabrielle."
Gasps ran through both the townspeople and the slaves at the pronouncement.
"For this, she will receive the justly accorded punishment of twenty lashes." Finished with his pronouncement, Gunni nodded to the whip-bearer.
The guard withdrew a knife from his vest and, pulling Xena's robe from her body, sliced through it. It fluttered open, keeping her breasts covered but bearing her back, legs and buttocks to the view of the crowd.
Gabrielle gasped loudly at the sight. Even fully clothed, the bard had noticed Xena's dramatic weight loss, but it was nothing compared to this naked view of her. Vertebrae stood out like knobs on her flesh. The hollows between her extremely prominent ribs were deep. The normally perfectly toned musculature of the warrior's buttocks and legs was shrunken and lax. Tears sprang anew to verdant eyes. "Please, Gunni," she whispered breathlessly. "She's suffered enough."
"She must be punished, Gabrielle. This discussion is over. Now do your job." Another nod to the whip-bearer.
The guard snaked out his long whip, giving it an experimental jerk before he raised back his arm. With a nod to the priest, he followed through, cracking the braided leather against Xena's exposed skin, welting it and drawing a thin line of blood from right shoulder to left hip. Raising his arm again, he did the same from the opposite side, creating an X in living flesh. The warrior endured her punishment unmoving.
Within the crowd of slaves, Corien and Iolake huddled together. "XE . . . .!" Iolake shouted out with the first strike, her call silenced by Corien's hand strong against her mouth.
"Quiet!" Corien hissed into her friend's ear. "I doubt these people know her real name. Don't you go giving it away."
"We've got to do something!" Iolake hissed back, eyeing the guards whose attention seemed to be on the spectacle in front of them. The young Amazon looked across the square and gasped. "Isn't that the Queen?"
Corien's eyes narrowed. "That's her alright."
"Why isn't she doing anything? Why isn't she stopping this?"
"Oh, she's doing something alright. She's recording it, for posterity's sake."
"That son of a bitch!"
"Shhh. Not so loud."
The silent square whistled with the crack of the whip as the third, fourth and fifth strokes landed against the unprotesting slave's back. Xena had yet to make a sound or bow her head. Her gaze was locked squarely on Gabrielle who, at the moment, was woefully failing her barding duties.
Gabrielle refused to look away. She was determined to watch every second of this locked within the gaze of Xena's icy eyes. To endure the punishment with the woman she, despite all her words and deeds, loved beyond measure.
"We've got to do something!" Iolake said, her voice close to breaking, her eyes welling with tears.
"I intend to," Corien responded, flipping over the cloak Xena had abandoned in the mines when the guards had taken her and exposing a bright glint of steel.
"Her chakram!" Iolake whispered reverently.
"Yeah. And I'm gonna get her out of here with it."
Iolake put a restraining hand on her friend's arm. "Wait. You don't even know how to use that thing! You could kill someone with it!"
"So? It won't hurt any of us."
"Corien . . . ."
Grasping the cloak, the Amazon warrior stepped closer to the guards, a murderous expression on her face.
"Corien!" Iolake shouted.
Xena whipped her head around at the sound. "No!" she ordered, her voice ringing through the square. "Stay back!"
"I can't let this happen to you!" Corien replied, readying her body to meet the advancing guard.
"Do as I say!" Xena ordered. "Stand down!" Her neck snapped back as a particularly brutal strike landed across many of the freely bleeding welts on her back. "Do it!" she gasped.
After a long moment of intense eye contact, Corien did as ordered, relaxing her stance and lowering her gaze. The guard grunted at the Amazon and pushed her back into the crowd of slaves before turning back to the whipping.
With a breath of relief, Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle, who was still staring, gape-jawed. The beating continued and she gave into the pain, allowing it to become part of her, grateful just for the chance to feel again. Rage sprung free from its dark cell, filling her body with icy hot warmth. Her body trembled with the effort to subdue it. Still it came, washing over her in a wave of wanton seduction, enticing her to set it free on the people of Gudvargen. To set it free on her; the betrayer. No! It's not that way! Something's going on with her! She's never . . . . Oh hasn't she? Remember Chin, my sister? Remember the look on her face when she betrayed you to Ming Tien? Remember? That wasn't her fault! Wasn't it? She hated you for loving someone else. Hated you for repaying a debt to your beloved Lao Ma. Hated you. Hated you! She. HATED. YOU.
A growl erupted from Xena's throat, gaining volume and strength with every heartbeat. The crowd gasped and stepped away reflexively. The guard's whip paused above his head. His face went white.
The warrior's arm muscles bulged and flexed as she began to break her bindings. The growl in her throat continued to build, the snarl of a trapped predator a heartbeat from breaking free to kill all who stood in its path.
Gabrielle's heart shuddered in her chest. She knew what was coming. Knew what would happen. She was terrified, not for herself, but for the townspeople. And, perhaps, even the slaves. "NO!" she screamed, hoping desperately to get the rage-filled warrior's attention. "NO!!"
The sound of Gabrielle's voice broke through the red-blooming haze as it almost always did. Capturing the snarling beast, the warrior wrestled it back down into its dark cage, listening to its enraged howls as she slammed down the locks on her soul. She forced her muscles to go limp as her forehead came into contact with the rough bark of the whipping post, all the fight drained from her body. The final three strikes fell unhindered.
And then it was over. The crowd, in awed silence, slowly dispersed as the guard let the beaten slave down from the post. Two more came forward to grab her arms. She was led from the square, beaten and bloodied, but with head unbowed.
Gabrielle moaned softly and slowly lifted her head. At her feet laid the half-digested remains of her last meal at Balder's table. She had dragged her numb body to the nearest clump of trees off the town's main square after she watched in horror as the guards dragged her battered friend and lover away. The churning in her stomach could no longer be ignored. She bent again and retched out what remained in her stomach. Again and again, her stomach and throat constricted, until her heaving produced nothing but air.
She stared at the mess at her feet, with unseeing eyes. All she could see were the cold, grey eyes of the warrior staring at her from the whipping post. She shuddered involuntarily. She knew that look. She had seen it at the Amazon camp moments before she felt a whip wrap around her ankles, bringing her crashing to the ground that soon rushed brutally beneath her. The Xena she knew was gone, replaced by the Warrior Princess, Ares' chosen one.
A warm hand on her back made Gabrielle jerk back to the present. She turned to find the concerned face of Panacea.
"Gabrielle, I'm ... " the older woman began, only to stop short when she a frightening spark in the bard's eyes.
"You told me there were no more rites after the flogging!" Gabrielle unleashed her rage on the resistance leader. "You said there were no more surprises, Panacea! I'd call this a surprise! How could you keep this from me?"
Panacea reached out to touch Gabrielle's arm. She felt a sharp pain as the younger woman struck her arm firmly before it could make contact.
"Don't touch me," Gabrielle growled through clenched teeth. "Just go away!"
"I will not go away, Gabrielle," Panacea tried to remain calm as she rubbed her slowly bruising arm. "I knew nothing of this kind of rite. No one has ever been asked to witness the beating of one of their former slaves."
"I'm not talking about that," Gabrielle groaned in frustration. "Gunni told me I had to give up every tie to my past, including my former slave. He brought Diana to me and I had to call her a Greek pig and tell her there could never be any connection between us again."
The bard swallowed a sob as the reality of her last sentence hit her. To never see Xena again ... it was too much to bear. She had sworn to go her separate way from Xena after this mission was completed. She was having second thoughts about that, but the look in Xena's eyes told her that would indeed be her fate after they left Gudvargen behind. She hates me. And I don't blame her. I hate me too.
Panacea focused on Gabrielle who had a distant look in her eye. She was muttering something incoherently. Panacea tentatively reached for the bard. Finding no resistance she took her by the shoulders and shook her lightly.
"Gabrielle?" No response.
Panacea shook harder. "Gabrielle, snap out of it."
Gabrielle looked at the older woman, but didn't appear to see her. She only heard the bard whisper one word over and over again. "Alone."
"Gabrielle, you're not alone," Panacea took the bard in her arms. "I'm right here."
She rocked her for a few short moments until she heard the young woman speak. "Panacea, why didn't you tell me?"
She released Gabrielle from her embrace. "Gabrielle, I didn't tell you because I didn't know. No one has ever been asked to give up their past, or people that they care about for Balder. You've met Balder, my friend. Do you really think he's the kind of god that would demand such a rite?"
Gabrielle's brow creased. She thought about the experiences she'd had with Balder so far. Panacea's words made sense. She had only felt love and joy in Balder's presence.
"No," Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "Then, why would Gunni require such a rite from me?"
Realization swept over Panacea like a wave. "He's paying you back, Gabrielle."
"Paying me back? For what?"
"For publicly defending the slaves," Panacea concluded. "This is his way of showing you who's boss. You succeed in saving two slaves at his expense. By having you in the square, unable to speak up for a slave this time, he saves face in public, and you end up looking like the hypocrite."
It all fell into place for Gabrielle. "If that's true, how can I go back to the temple?"
"You must, Gabrielle," Panacea took her hand in hers. "Now that Gunni has shown you up he'll believe that you'll behave now and stop speaking up for the slaves. But, you can't stop now. This has got to steel your resolve to free the slaves, Gabrielle. You can't let anyone else suffer what Diana went through today. This makes our work more urgent, and more important than ever."
"Diana," new tears sprung up at the pseudonym of her soul mate. "How could I let Gunni do that to her."
"You didn't have a choice, Gabrielle," Panacea stroked the bard's face, wiping away an errant tear. "If you had refused, Gunni would have kicked you out of the temple, and then we'd be back at square one in all our work to end slavery here."
Gabrielle nodded. She knew Panacea was right, but still ...
"I've got to see Diana. I've got to tell her that I didn't mean anything I said, and that I'm sorry it ended up like this. I've got to tell her that I still ... " Gabrielle's voice failed her.
"That you still care about her?" Panacea finished the thought for her.
"No, Panacea," Gabrielle gave a fierce look to her friend, "Love. That I still love her. That's all I want to tell her."
Panacea smiled at her young friend. She could see the love Gabrielle held for this slave.
"It's too dangerous for you to leave the temple right now, Gabrielle. If my theory is right, I suspect Gunni will be keeping a close eye on you. I'll find a way to see Diana and give her your message."
Gabrielle could only nod her response before the tears again rushed from her eyes.
The newly rising moon cast its silvery light over the buildings making up the small Northern town. Inside the Temple, in a small room, Panacea sat next to Gabrielle who was beneath the covers of her narrow bed. Gunni had not made an appearance to comfort the grieving young woman. Aevar, however, his normally arrogant nature tamed somewhat by the events of the day, came in frequently, bringing fresh water and soft cloths for Gabrielle to use to clean her tear-stained face.
The acolyte had no words for the events except to say that in these situations, Gunni simply knew best and it was prudent to trust his actions. That seemed to be a warning of sorts and both women accepted it without question.
Panacea gently stroked Gabrielle's hair as the bard stared blankly at the ceiling. "I need to get ready to go soon," the resistance leader said softly.
Gabrielle turned her head slowly to meet the eyes of her friend. "How will you get to her? Where will you go?"
The older woman smiled and grasped one of Gabrielle's hands in her own. "I have a friend who's a guard at the women's barracks. I'll see if there's something he can do to set up a meeting."
The bard smiled faintly. "A 'friend', huh?"
Panacea colored, squeezing Gabrielle's hand playfully. "He's young enough to be my son, Gabrielle," she mock-chided. Her face went serious. "Actually, I never told you this before, but there are two resistance movements here. This friend, Nels, is a member of the other."
"Two?" Gabrielle exclaimed, struggling to sit up. "Why didn't you tell me about the other one?"
The other woman's flush deepened. "They . . .don't exactly agree with our ideals regarding the freedom of the slaves."
"The group is made up of mostly the young. They believe in freeing this current group of slaves and secreting them out of the town unawares. They give no thought to long term planning."
Gabrielle nodded as she relaxed back on her elbows. She was well aware of that particular argument. "They just don't see the need for slavery to be abolished completely."
"Oh, they understand the need perfectly," Panacea countered. "They just don't want to have to wait for it to happen. Things like this take time. Lots of time. And many of the younger members of that group work closely with the slaves every day. They see the conditions; the sickness, the starvation." She sighed. "Their motives are very noble. They accuse us of turning a blind eye toward the slaves we have now in favor of slaves we might get in the future. And, in some ways, they're right."
Gabrielle sat up again, grasping Panacea's hand between her own two, chafing the skin beneath her palms gently. "They're not right, Panacea. Freeing these slaves is like putting a simple bandage on a hemorrhaging wound. It solves nothing in the long run."
"Intellectually, I understand that. But, in my heart . . . ." She shrugged. "I can't help but wonder how I'd feel if my daughter were still alive here. Would I be willing to wait for change while she suffered?" Lost in thought, she looked down at their clasped hands, teeth worrying at her lower lip. "How do you do it, Gabrielle?" she asked finally. "It's obvious the love you have for Diana. How do you go on day to day knowing how much she's suffering in there?"
The bard closed her eyes. "I do it because I believe in the greater good."
"'The greater good'?"
"Something Diana taught me years ago. There are times, just like this one, where we need to sacrifice our own safety so that others around us can be kept safe."
Panacea smiled. "You have great wisdom for one so young, my friend."
"I learned a lot of it from Diana. And from the trials we've been through together. It's a guiding force that shapes both of our lives." She looked down at the blankets covering her body. "And I'm bound to it," she whispered, "no matter what."
Both women sat lost in thought for a long moment before Panacea straightened and gently pulled herself free from Gabrielle's handclasp, looking through the partially shuttered window. "It's getting late. Nels' shift should have ended an hour or so ago. If I hurry, I should be able to catch him at his home." Standing, she smiled down at her young friend. "Wish me luck."
Gabrielle dredged up a smile. "Good luck. And remember . . . ."
"Yes, I know. You love her. I'll be sure and tell her that."
The smile bloomed fully as Gabrielle slumped back in the bed. "Thank you," she whispered, closing her eyes.
Panacea caught Nels just as he was about to leave his homestead, his arms full of cloth and small bundles. The young man's eyes lit with surprise to see the woman standing at his door. "Panacea. What a surprise. What are you doing here?"
"Hello, Nels," she greeted, smiling. "It looks like I've caught you at a bad time."
"Um . . .no. I've just got to drop these things off to a friend of mine. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Perhaps. It's really important that I speak to you. Do you have a minute?"
Looking around, Nels nodded, stepping back into his house and beckoning with his head for Panacea to follow. "What is it that you need?"
"Do you remember the slave that was whipped today? Diana?"
"You mean . . . ." he trailed off before uttering the warrior's true name. "Diana? I never knew that was her name, but yes I remember. I was guarding the other slaves. Why?"
"Well, do you remember a small blonde woman standing next to Gunni, scribing the punishment?"
"The one who looks a little like you? Yeah, sure I remember. She's Gabrielle, right? The newest 'convert' to the almighty temple of Gunni?" Sarcasm rolled like honey off his tongue.
"Yes, that's her. Only it's not what you think. Gabrielle is one of us. She's also Diana's former owner."
Former owner? Nels thought. That's not possible! No one owns Xena. Then he realized that the young woman must have been a friend Xena brought with her to help free the slaves. "Ok. What does this have to do with me?"
"It's very important that I talk to Diana. Gabrielle was made to do the things she did against her will. Gunni trapped her into denouncing Diana to repay her for publicly embarrassing him. Gabrielle is heartbroken over her actions and it's imperative that Diana understands why she had to do what she did." Her verdant eyes took on a pleading cast. "You're a guard at the camp. Can you help me get in to see her somehow? It's very, very important."
Nels stood still for a long moment, undecided. Should he take the risk of exposing Xena to an outsider, especially after all that had just happened to her? "I . . .I can take a message to her, if you want," he offered finally.
"Thank you, but it's imperative that I speak to her personally. Please, Nels. Can you help me?"
"Ok, listen. I meet with her almost every night in the stables. I doubt she'll come out tonight, with what happened to her, but I'm not gonna take the chance of missing her, so I'm going out there. You can come with me if you promise to do everything I say and, if she's there, let me talk to her first to see if she's up to talking with you. Alright?"
Panacea beamed. "That's perfect! I promise I won't make a sound until you say so."
Nels nodded, satisfied. Disagreements over philosophies or no, they were on the same side. And if this woman could say anything to make Xena feel better, then he was all for that. "Ok, we'll leave now. Will you help me carry some of these things, please? They're a little unwieldy."
"What are they?"
"They're for . . .Diana. And the slaves. A new shift to replace the one they cut off, some clean cloths for bandages, food, herbs. Stuff like that."
The resistance leader looked down at her own empty hands, suddenly feeling very small. Feeling tears suddenly well up in her eyes, Panacea could only nod and accept some of the bundles Nels gave her.
Stepping back outside, Nels took a last, quick look around, then started off for the stables.
The slave hut was, as always, dark and cold despite the roaring fire in the fireplace. Women stood in small groups, all eyes turned toward the steadily growing commotion sounding in the far end of the hovel.
"For the last time, Corien, no!"
"But Xena . . .please. You're in no condition to go over that wall! I'll go in your place."
"Corien, I appreciate your concern, but I've had worse wounds in a fight and was still able to do my job."
"But . . . ."
The warrior whirled, her eyes icy. "I said no! You need to stay here and continue training the women. This discussion is over."
Dropping her eyes, the young Amazon bit at her lip, then nodded. "I'll do as you ask."
Xena's eyes, and her voice, warmed. "Thank you." Laying a gentle hand on Corien's shoulder, she gave it a fond squeeze. "I'll be back soon."
And then, she was gone.
Nels led Panacea through the drifting snow to the stables, stopping just before he reached the large opening. "Stay right here," he whispered. "And remember what I said. Don't come in unless I come out to get you, alright?"
"Agreed," Panacea replied, handing over her share of the supplies to the young guard, then slipping into the shadows so she wouldn't be easily seen by any person passing through the area.
Nels juggled the wrapped packages until they were secure in his arms, then walked slowly, carefully, into the stables, heading straight for Argo's stall. To his utter relief and slight surprise, Xena stood waiting for him in the shadows of the stall, standing tall, with her arms crossed over her chest in a vain attempt to keep the torn shift covering at least some of her long body.
The young man smiled brightly as he entered the stall, stooping briefly to place the precious bundles on the clean straw littering the floor. "Xena. I'm glad you could make it. How are you feeling? I'm sorry about what happened. It must have been horrible for you." He knew he was babbling, but couldn't seem to help himself.
The warrior raised a raven eyebrow. "Thank you. Fine. I'm sorry too. It was." A faint smirk curled one corner of her mouth.
Nels stared at Xena in shock for a moment, then began laughing at her dry humor. Bending over, he picked up one of the bundles, unwrapping the covering cloth and holding out a new shift. "This is for you. I doubt they allow slaves to keep thread, so I just got you a new one. I hope you don't mind."
Xena smiled as she reached out for the gift. "Thank you," she said, cradling the garment in her large hands. Her eyebrow rose again as she smiled wickedly. "One more of these from you and we're officially betrothed."
Uttering a strangled cough, the young guard blushed to the roots of his hair. "I didn't . . . . I mean it wasn't . . . . I mean . . . .oh gods, I don't know what I mean right now."
Xena closed the distance between them, laying a hand on his upper arm. "It's alright. I was just joking."
"I know," Nels replied, a warm flush going through his body at the beautiful warrior's nearness. "It's just . . . ." He blew out a loud breath, which Argo responded to with a nicker. "I'll, um, leave the stall if you want to, you know, put that on or something." Nels was beyond frustrated, the young man unused to being tongue tied around women. Then again, no woman had ever effected him like this.
"That's ok," the warrior replied, stepping away from him. "I'll wait until we're finished talking."
"Ok. Good. Oh, that reminds me. There's someone here who wants to speak with you."
Xena's head shot up as she stiffened. "Who," she demanded, reaching for the chakram hidden beneath her cloak.
Nels' eyes widened and he took a step back as he realized that Xena had misinterpreted his statement. "It's ok. Really. It's a friend of mine. A member of the resistance movement. She says she needs to talk to you. Says it's very important. Something about a message from Gabrielle?"
Xena relaxed, removing her hand from her weapon. "It's not Gabrielle, is it?"
"Oh no. Her name's Panacea. She looks a little like Gabrielle, though. If that's any help."
The warrior nodded, knowing who her young friend was talking about. Panacea was the woman she'd seen holding her partner that night she'd gone into the town. "She just wants to deliver a message?"
"That's all. I offered to deliver it for her, but she insisted she had to talk to you personally."
"Can she be trusted?"
"Absolutely," the guard said with conviction. "We might have different ideas on how to go about releasing the slaves, but Panacea's a good woman. I'd stake my life on that."
"Alright. Bring her inside. I'll talk to her."
"Uh, just one more thing. For some reason, she thinks your name is Diana."
Xena smiled slightly. "That's fine. Send her in."
Nels stepped out of the stall and hastened to the opening where he beckoned the waiting resistance leader inside. Panacea gingerly followed the young guard past the piles of equipment and loose hay that lay scattered on the packed dirt floor of the stables. Staying outside of the stall to give the two women some privacy, Nels gestured at Panacea to enter the enclosure. Panacea took a deep breath and did so.
The resistance leader's first impression upon entering the stall and seeing the slave up close for the first time was how the woman towered over her, standing erect and proud like a temple statue, the pain from her brutal beating hidden behind a stone mask. Her second impression was of the incredible beauty this woman possessed, wearing it like a favorite cloak, unnoticed but appreciated just the same. Clearing her throat, Panacea came to a stop some distance from the regal, imposing woman. "Thank you for allowing me to speak to you. My name is Panacea. I'm a friend . . .of Gabrielle's."
Panacea, Xena thought, smirking internally. A perfect name for Gabrielle's new cure-all.
"I know," she replied aloud.
"You know? But how?"
"I saw you with Gabrielle the other night. Hugging by the fire." Xena's pale eyes betrayed no emotion.
"'Huggin . . . ." her voice trailed off. "But that's . . .that's impossible!"
A raven eyebrow rose. "Is it?"
Panacea gulped against the dryness in her throat. "Um . . .I guess it isn't."
Xena allowed the uncomfortable silence to linger a bit, taking a sort of perverse pleasure in the other woman's obvious distress. "You had something you wanted to tell me?"
"Yes. It's about Gabrielle."
"What about Gabrielle." Xena's tone, neither harsh nor warm, betrayed nothing.
"I know what happened to you was very brutal, and you've every right to be angry, Diana. But you need to know that what Gabrielle did, she under duress. She meant none of it." The woman's silence was unnerving her, but she forged ahead, determined to get her message across. "You see, some time ago, I approached her and asked her to join the resistance movement within Gudvargen. It was obvious Gunni, the temple priest, had taken a liking to her, giving her a place within the temple proper. It was just as obvious that Gabrielle had an affinity for the slaves and wanted to see them safe and free. Like we do. She was just the person we needed in the movement. Someone with Gunni's ear and free access to the temple and the acolytes. Gunni is a hard, greedy man, but we believe some of his acolytes can be swayed to our way of thinking. No one's ever been able to get close to them before. The problem was, if Gabrielle didn't join the Family of Balder, her job as temple scribe would have been taken away from her.
"So I talked her into joining the church. She passed all the rites wonderfully, doing everything that was asked of her. Then, this morning, she was fully inducted into Balder's family. But Gunni had something up his sleeve. You see, Gabrielle stood up for you and the temple slave Evadne in public, making Gunni appear less than perfect in front of his followers. As I've said, he's a very greedy and power-hungry man. So he taught her a lesson. He added a false rite to the induction ceremony."
"Let me guess," Xena said, breaking her silence. "She had to break off any and all ties to her slave. That makes her lose face with the public. Her scribing my 'punishment' only makes her look more like a hypocrite. Her voice carries no more weight with those who might seek to end slavery and Gunni gets his victory."
"Exactly," Panacea replied, awed by the slave's deductive powers. "He didn't give her a chance to think about it. She had no choice. If she would have refused, she'd have been banished from Gudvargen forever." She looked up at the tall woman, her eyes pleading in the dim light. "She did what she did because she had no choice, Diana. It broke her heart. She's been in her bed all day, sobbing like her life has ended. She wanted to come and tell you herself, but I refused to let her. Gunni's bound to be watching her like a hawk for the next few weeks, making sure she keeps her promise."
Taking a deep breath, Panacea steeled her courage and walked closer to the woman standing before her, tilting her head up to meet the piercing gaze directed at her. "She wanted to tell you she was sorry, Diana. She also wanted to tell you . . . that she loves you."
The warrior's stone mask wavered for the briefest fraction of a second. Her pale eyes warmed just a shade, something indefinable crossing through their depths. Then, as if the whole thing had only been a trick of the light, her face resumed its somber cast, emotions carefully hidden within. "She said that, did she."
Panacea almost sobbed in relief, sure that her message had been received. "Yes, she said that. She thinks you hate her for what she did and it's killing her inside. She was torn between her love for you and her need to free the slaves. I suppose she made the choice she did because she hoped you'd understand and find it within your heart to forgive her."
Xena stood still for a long span of moments, thinking. Panacea's words rang true to the character of Gabrielle. She wanted to believe them, needed to trust in their veracity. Yet some part of her heart struggled against giving in to their seductive promise. She had been through too much these last months to want to give herself wholly over to the possibility of a love that still existed for her. Regardless, Gabrielle was still alive, and she was hurting. Badly. And that part of the warrior that would be forever entwined with the spirit of the bard wanted to reach out in love and comfort, no matter what the cost. "She's going to need a friend," Xena said finally, meeting the other woman's gaze directly. "Someone to support her through these hard times. I can't be that for her now. But you can." Her look became one of warning. One that promised fatal results if Panacea should fail in duty.
"I want to be that person," Panacea reassured the intense woman standing before her. "I like Gabrielle very much. She's a wonderful person. Warm, caring, loving. She's helped me through a very trying time in my life. Her compassion and caring have shown me it's ok to feel again."
Xena smiled slightly. "That's Gabrielle, alright. She did the same for me."
Something within that almost melancholy smile touched Panacea deeply. She found herself needing the slave's good opinion of her, if only to prove that she would be a steadfast companion to Gabrielle. "When I was very young," she began, "I lived life outside this village. I fell in love with a wonderful man. A Greek man. What I felt for him was so strong and so deep that it felt as if my soul was melded to his with a bond that could never be broken." She looked down at the dirty floor. "When my family found out, they killed him. I had become pregnant with our child, and when she was born, they took her from me too. I saw her only long enough to feed her one time and give her a name before she was torn from my arms." Tears traced gentle trails down her cheeks as she relived the memories. "I came here, hoping to find her. I had searched for years and years, always hoping. I found her. Here. In this town. She was a slave, working in the very mines you work in now. My heart was filled with such pain and joy. When I went to Gunni to offer to pay for her, he told me she died in an accident in the mines. My beautiful little girl who had grown into a woman. Dead."
As the words were expelled from her mouth, Panacea broke down, sobbing into her hands. She startled as a warm, strong presence enveloped her, holding her close and stroking her hair. She fell into the embrace with abandon, allowing it to shroud her in warmth and compassion, allowing it to draw her grief away from her and into itself. No wonder Gabrielle loves this woman so. To feel such safety within these arms. As if no harm dare come to me here. Panacea was again awed at this slave, this woman who had chosen to give up her freedom to help others, worse off than herself, to become free once more. "Why?" she mumbled against a linen covered chest. "Why did she have to die?"
Reaching up a hand to wipe her eyes, the resistance leader pulled slightly away from the embrace. "I've always had this feeling that my daughter's death was no accident. That Gunni was involved, somehow. But I've never been able to prove it. That answer is the only thing I need in my life right now."
"I think you already know the answer," Xena replied, increasing the distance between them once again. "You've said it yourself. Gunni is a greedy, power-hungry man. And Gudvargen is a dying town. It's one of the few around that still espouses slavery. Why? The mines. Gunni has a kingdom's ransom in gems right here, and free, easily replaceable labor to extract them for him. He helps to feed Caesar's treasury, and in return, the Romans give him a sense of protection. No one dares attack this town. And so he rules here like a king. He can't afford to let any of the slaves leave here, Panacea. He works them until they die. He could no more sell one to you than he could cut off his own hand." The warrior looked down at the quietly sobbing woman, her eyes compassionate. "What was your daughter's name?"
"Helene. I saw her only once when I got here. I knew she was mine. Tall, like her father, with a shock of beautiful read hair."
"Helene?" Xena repeated. "Red hair?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"If I'm right, Panacea, your daughter's still alive."
Panacea froze, her face white with shock. Thoughts roiled around in her head like a dog chasing its tail. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest, her head pounded queasily. "You're . . .my . . .my daughter is alive?"
"If we're talking about the same Helene, then yes, she's still alive. She's the woman I stopped from getting a beating that day in the mines. Were you in the square that day?"
"No! I was holding a resistance meeting at the time. I had only heard of it later." She took in a breath that was half a sob. "You mean . . .you mean you saved my daughter's life?"
Xena shrugged one shoulder, slightly embarrassed at the look Panacea was giving her. "Well, I had help," she explained, then got no further as she suddenly had her arms full of a joyous woman squeezing her with all her strength. She hissed as the woman's hands dug into the painful welts in her back.
Hearing the sound of pain, Panacea released the woman quickly, stepping back as tears continued to stream down her cheeks. She covered her mouth with her hands, then took them away. Her feet shuffled nervously, happily, in the straw. "You . . .I can't . . .I can't believe it. Helene. My daughter. Alive!"
The warrior held up a hand to restrain the joyous shout she knew was soon in coming from the resistance leader. "She's been very sick for a long time. We've managed to treat her illness, but she's far from healthy. It'll be a long while before she's strong again."
"That doesn't matter. Don't you see? She's alive! Alive!! Helene's alive!!!"
"I'll do my best to help keep her that way. But without your help, and the help of others like you, I can't say for sure how successful I'll be. And there are a hundred more women just like your daughter. Starving. Ill. They deserve the chance to live as well." Xena paced the length of the stall. "I don't want to tell you how to run your group, but perhaps you should give some thought to joining with Nels' organization. Try to come up with some middle ground you can both agree on. If this is to have any chance at working, we need as many people as possible helping. Wait too long and these slaves, and your daughter, will die."
"Yes, yes," Panacea replied, pacing as well. "You're right, of course. That's just what we'll do. I'll tell Nels right away and we'll meet first thing in the morning. Now that we've got Gabrielle in the temple for us, things need to move quickly." She turned to the tall woman, her eyes shining. "I don't know how to thank you, Diana. No words could ever express my gratitude."
"No thanks are needed. Just work to free all the slaves of Gudvargen. That's all I ask."
"It will be done. I swear to you."
Xena took a deep breath, then came to a decision. In order to help Gabrielle, this woman had to know the truth. All of it. With her daughter a hostage to fortune, Xena was sure Panacea would keep the information to herself. "Panacea," she began softly, "there's something else you need to know."
The resistance leader stopped her frenetic pacing, turning to the slave, her face lined with worry. "Yes?"
"Everything isn't . . .exactly . . .how it seems."
"What do you mean?"
The warrior took in another deep breath of chilled air, running her fingers through her raven mane. She gave a half smile to the waiting woman. "Well, for starters, my name isn't really Diana."
Panacea looked up at the woman, her head cocked, her eyes questioning. "It isn't?"
"No. It isn't. My name is Xena."
The resistance leader's face paled in shock once again. "Xena? The Destroyer of Nations Xena?"
The warrior winced at the detested title. "Not anymore, but yes, that Xena."
"My . . .Tiro . . .used to tell stories about you. How you murdered for sport, sweeping over towns and nations with no thought to anything or anyone save yourself. He said you rode with Ares by your side and in your heart." Panacea tried desperately to reconcile the images that Tiro had given her with the woman now standing before her. Try as she might, she couldn't fit the two of them together.
"That's all true," Xena replied, her voice a harsh whisper. "It's a past I'll spend my life trying to amend."
"And Gabrielle? Does she know of this?"
Xena smiled fully. "Yes, she does. She's one of the main reasons I am who I am today."
"I don't understand?"
The warrior stared intently into the green eyes of Panacea, her own deadly earnest. "Panacea, what I'm about to tell you will spell her death if it ever gets out."
"What, Di . . .I mean Xena. I don't understand what you're trying to tell me. Is 'Gabrielle' a false name too?"
"No, it's her name, alright."
"Gabrielle is my partner."
Xena sighed. Obviously she was going to have to spell things out to the confused woman. "Panacea, Gabrielle is as Greek as I am. I saved her from a group of slavers four years ago in her home town of Poteidia. Poteidia, Greece."
"No. That's not . . . . That's not possible! It can't be true!"
"It's very true. We've been travelling together for four years. In her life before she came here, Gabrielle was a bard. And an Amazon Queen."
Panacea ran her hands through her hair and began pacing again. "This is just so unbelievable. The Destroyer of Nations is a slave in Gudvargen and Gabrielle is really a Greek Queen of the Amazons. I must be dreaming this all up. A bit of bad food for dinner last night or something."
Xena remained silent as the older woman walked a square around the stall, muttering to herself. Finally, Panacea stepped a few paces in front of the warrior. "Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because Gabrielle needs your support. And you need to know who she really is before you can offer that to her."
Shaking her head in disbelief, Panacea cupped her face between her hands, then resumed her pacing. After several circuits, she stopped dead, as if her boots became frozen to the floor. She looked up, wide eyed. "Oh my," she breathed as a realization struck her. "Balder spoke to Gabrielle. Gabrielle is Greek and he spoke to her."
"So?" Thinking about the statement, Xena's eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me that you, a member of a resistance movement, believe your precious god is above speaking to Greeks."
"No! Don't you see? Balder spoke to Gabrielle!" Panacea enunciated each word carefully.
Xena crossed her arms against her chest, her eyebrow hiked up beneath her bangs. "Yeah. I got that part."
Panacea blew out a breath, her fists clenched in frustration. "He spoke to her, Xena!" she repeated a third time. When the warrior continued to stare at her, Panacea realized she needed to explain a bit more. "In Gudvargen, and in other towns that still have Greek slaves, there's a creation story that, in essence, states that it is Balder's holy law that we own Greeks as slaves. Gunni preaches that point during every sermon he makes, and uses the scrolls to back his view up. According to the story, Greeks are used as beasts of burden in repentance for the sins of a long dead ancestor who shamed Balder. Balder is supposed to hate the Greeks. But . . .if a Greek was actually witnessed talking to Balder, being welcomed by him into his family. . . .don't you see? It blows Gunni's theory right out of the water! This revelation is exactly what we need to end slavery forever!"
"Wait just a moment," Xena interjected, shooting out a long arm and latching onto one of Panacea's. "Having the means to end slavery here is all well and good, but not at the expense of Gabrielle's life. If her true identity is discovered, she's dead."
"No, Xena. It's not that way. Between my group and the one Nels belongs to, we have more than enough people to protect Gabrielle from Gunni and his followers."
"But not against the Romans."
"The Romans? What do they have to do with this? I mean, sure, they might be upset that the slave labor is lost, but as long as we still have the mines, I'm sure they can come up with another way to extract the gems."
"The Romans have everything to do with this, Panacea. One Roman in particular. Caesar."
"I'll ask you again. Why should someone like Caesar care if the slaves are freed? I'm sure he has a lot more important things to worry about."
"Caesar doesn't care about the slaves. He cares about me. And he cares about Gabrielle. And if he finds out that she's here, then he'll know that I'm here. And Gabrielle dies."
"Why are you two so important to Caesar?"
Xena exhaled a frosty breath. "It's a long story."
"Please, Xena. If I'm to help Gabrielle, I think I need to know the whole thing."
"Caesar and I have somewhat of a . . .history with one another. It goes back almost fourteen years now. And since that time, Gabrielle's been pulled into that little war between us. Before we came here, Caesar and Pompey landed in Greece, intending to carry out a civil war in our country. Gabrielle and I prevented that from happening. We tricked them into destroying each other's armies and they ran back to Rome with their tails between their legs." Xena rubbed at her forehead. "I also believe that Caesar had meant to get us out of the way before the war by making up a story of some Greeks being kidnapped and sold as slaves in the north. We got the message, but only after we managed to defeat him. That's why we're here. And I have no doubt that Caesar knows it now. Maybe not our exact location, but that's never troubled him too much." The warrior began pacing, rubbing her numbed arms beneath her cloak. "And I've also heard that Caesar is planning on visiting Gudvargen before the next full moon, to take a look at those Berserkers of yours." She stopped before Panacea, looking deeply into shocked green eyes. "At the first hint of Caesar's presence, you need to hide Gabrielle as best you can. He can't know she's here, or all is lost. Do you understand me?"
"Yes. Yes, I understand you, Xena. And I'll make sure Gabrielle is safe at all times. I'll also keep what you've told me to myself. I swear it."
Xena's features relaxed into a smile, warming the glacial coldness of her fierce pale eyes. "Good. That's all I needed to know. In the meantime, just do your part to work on getting the slaves free and I'll do my part to help keep them healthy and safe. Agreed?"
Panacea returned the smile. "Agreed."
"Oh. And one other thing."
"Tell Gabrielle I forgive her. And . . .tell her that I love her."
Panacea's smile turned to a full-out grin. She stepped closer to the imposing warrior and laid a small, warm hand on a muscled forearm. "I will. Thank you, Xena. I'm glad I got the chance to meet you. It's easy to see why Gabrielle was so hurt over what she had to do, and why she loves you so much. You're a good person."
"Yeah, well, don't go spreadin' that around, alright?"
The resistance leader laughed softly, then slipped away from the tall form. "Not another word on it. I promise. Goodbye, Xena. And thank you again."
"You're welcome. Do you want me to give Helene a message for you?"
Panacea's brow furrowed. "No. Not right now. If she knows I'm here, she may just try to do something that would get her in trouble. It's best we wait until the slaves are free. Then I can tell her myself." Emerald eyes closed and a smile played over the older woman's face as she pictured the reunion in her mind. Then, standing up straight and waving once more to the warrior, Panacea turned and was gone from the stables, a perplexed Nels in tow.
Gabrielle involuntarily shivered from the cold. She surveyed the snowy field before her. She could make out shapes in the distance, but was unsure of what they were. She slogged slowly through the tall snowdrifts. The figures in the distance became clearer. She gasped at the sight.
"Oh, gods, no," her voice a strangled whisper.
She felt Xena, not beside her, but closer somehow. The warmth of her soul mate filled her, and brought her immense joy.
A smile spread across her face.
Her whole body shook at the sound. She heard Xena's voice.
The voice was louder ... and the pitch shifted higher. Gabrielle's brow furrowed with worry. Her body shook again.
"Gabrielle, wake up."
The bard stirred from her deep slumber, one word on her lips. "Xena?"
She opened her eyes to see a face so familiar it could be her own in another 20 winters. "No, Gabrielle, it's not Xena, it's me, Panacea."
Shocked and horrified at her utterance of the warrior's name in front of Panacea, Gabrielle sat up quickly and tried to explain, "Um, sorry, Panacea, I was having a dream about a ... um ... a ... horse I used to own ... um, named Xena."
Panacea chuckled softly. "A horse, eh?"
"Yes, a horse," Gabrielle nodded vigorously.
"Strange, she had a horse with her, but I don't think it was named Xena, too."
Gabrielle shook her head. "You ... you know about Xena?"
"Yes," Panacea placed a reassuring hand on the bard's shoulder. "I don't know that she'd take too kindly to you thinking she was a horse, though."
The younger blond smiled broadly. "No, probably not."
"Xena told me everything, Gabrielle," Panacea stood, turning her back to the bard.
Gabrielle swallowed, her mouth going dry. "Everything?"
"Yes," Panacea turned around with a smile. "I know all about you two, and I know you're really Greek."
"And this is a good thing?" Gabrielle was having trouble getting Panacea's meaning.
"Yes, Gabrielle," Panacea took her friend's hands. "Your conversion to Balder proves Greeks were not meant to be slaves. You're the key to ending slavery here!"
Gabrielle beamed at the news. "That's wonderful, Panacea."
"But the best news," the older woman was practically gushing now, "the best news is that Xena says my daughter is still alive!"
"Oh, Panacea, what great news!" Gabrielle stood and gave her friend a fierce hug.
A shadow of worry crossed the resistance leader's face. "Though Xena says she's not doing well. Apparently many of the slaves, including my Helene, are starving and sick. I never realized just how bad it really is in the slave camps. I guess we were ready to believe that Gunni was really taking care of them, giving them medicine and showing them Balder's love, even in captivity. We were naive, Gabrielle, but no more. Your conversion clinches it. Now we must move quickly to free the slaves and end this abomination once and for all here in Gudvargen."
"I agree," Gabrielle met the eyes of her friend. "We'll start tomorrow. Call a meeting of all the resistance groups. If we all work together I know we can free the slaves. The people in this town are good people, I've seen that. Given the right kind of prompting I know they'll do the right thing."
"I'll do that!" Panacea turned to leave filled with excitement at the day's events.
"Wait, Panacea," Gabrielle put her hand on her friend's shoulder. "Did you give Xena my message?"
"Would you look at me?" Panacea turned back to the bard. "I'm so wrapped up in myself I almost forgot. Yes, of course I gave her your message. She says she forgives you and," she placed her hand lightly on Gabrielle's cheek, "that she loves you, very much."
A sob escaped from Gabrielle's lips. She so longed to hear those words from Xena's own mouth.
"You two are meant for each other, Gabrielle," Panacea stroked the bard's cheek, "I can see that. She tried to hide her feelings for you from me, but I saw it. She's lost without you ... and you, my friend, you're lost without her."
Gabrielle could only nod as a tear fell from her eye.
"A love this deep is a rare gift, Gabrielle," Panacea gently lifted Gabrielle's chin, green eyes locking in a compassionate gaze, "cherish it."
"Thank you, Panacea."
"For what?" the older woman smiled.
"For being my friend."
"Oh, that," Panacea waved her hand in the air and smiled. "My pleasure."
Gabrielle smiled at her Norse friend and warmly embraced her.
"Oh," Panacea remembered more as the hug ended. "One other thing. Xena wanted to warn you that she believes Caesar may come snooping around these parts looking for you two. Something about sending you up here to free slaves as a way to get you out of Greece so he could conquer
the country. I'm fuzzy on the details."
The pieces fell together for Gabrielle. "Velaris," she muttered.
"Never mind," Gabrielle waved off the question. "I'm not going to worry about Caesar. We have more important work to do."
Gabrielle paced her small cell. Panacea had been gone for some time, but the bard found she could not go back to sleep.
Feeling a mixture of relief, excitement and fear, she found it easier to keep moving. Her mind was spinning with potential plans to free the slaves now that the two movements could find common ground where they could work together.
Her ruminations turned toward a review of the day's events. She stopped cold at the whipping of her life mate.
She felt a sob try to escape as her mind's eye witnessed again the brutality she had forced Xena to suffer.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry," she whispered to the walls.
She thought back to the emaciated form her warrior had become in the short time she had spent in the slave camps. If someone as strong and healthy as Xena could waste away so quickly in the slave camps how must the other slaves be holding up? Gabrielle remembered how her gut wrenched at the pitiful site of the slave they brought out when Xena's head was on the chopping block.
"By the gods," Gabrielle moaned. "How they've suffered. I never realized."
Her sorrow and sympathy quickly turned to a feeling of disgust with herself. 'Here I am, stuffing myself silly with food, worrying about a day long fast, while not half a mile away, people are starving. How could these people allow this to happen? How could they believe in a god that would let it go on?'
Her self-loathing gave way to anger. She turned her face toward the ceiling and screamed, "Balder, how could you let this happen! If I'm proof that even the Greeks are your children, how can you stand by and let them suffer!"
"What kind of a god is it that allows his children to treat one another with such disdain and disregard? How could I have even thought that I could love a god like that? I know you've welcomed me into your presence, Balder, and I should be thankful, but why don't you do
something? Your people are suffering!"
She found herself shaking her fist in the air as she delivered her passionate lecture to the god of purity and innocence.
"The person I love most in all the world is suffering, Balder," she said softly as she bowed her head. "I can't let that continue. I'm no god, but I'll find a way to save her."
The quiet in the room was suddenly deafening. "Balder? Are you even with me anymore?"
Gabrielle remembered the warm feeling she had experienced during her flogging. She longed to feel that warmth and joy again. She knelt by her bed. Laying her arms on the soft mattress she closed her eyes and began to speak.
"Balder, forgive me. I'm way out of line shouting a god like you. I know you care about me and these slaves. I've felt your love and your compassion. I know it's true. I don't understand your ways, however. It seems to me a god could bend his people to his will and end an injustice like slavery. Sorry, here I go again giving you lectures," she laughed softly, but turned serious again as she continued. "I just want to feel that peace again, Balder, the peace of knowing that I'm home, that I've found the place where I'm supposed to be. Give me that peace again, Balder. Show me my home."
She knelt a few more minutes. Her knees began to ache as the stone of the floor dug into the tender flesh. She peeked one eye open and looked around. Nothing. She opened the other eye and surveyed the room, half expecting to find herself with godly company. Nothing. Just her, alone in an empty bed chamber. She sighed heavily.
Maybe it had all been a trick of the light before. Maybe it had just been the wine. Maybe she had never experienced Balder in the first place. Gabrielle got up and threw herself on the bed.
"I'll never find home," she sighed, pounding the pillow in frustration. "It's just an illusion."
She let her head fall heavily on the pillow.
The snow stung her numb face. Her body ached from the cold. She could taste blood in her mouth. She looked around her and drew in a sharp breath. She saw crosses all around her, bodies hanging askew on each of them. The moans of the dying filled her ears. She suddenly realized she was on her back, arms outstretched.
"Gods," her breath formed a white cloud above her head.
She felt a familiar presence. She turned her head to see soldiers lay Xena on the cross next to her.
She heard the voice that made her soul vibrate with joy. "Gabrielle, you are the best thing in my life."
Gabrielle smiled at the words. She thought back over the time she had spent with Xena, the good and the bad. No matter what she did, where she went, or what happened, there had been one constant in her life... Xena.
Despite the chilled air around her, Gabrielle felt a warmth descend around her and take her in. Like a lover's embrace, it caressed her, filling each of her senses. She turned her head again to take in the face of her beloved, only the scene had changed. There were no more bodies, no more crosses, no more snow. It was replaced by the presence of the other half of her soul.
"Welcome home, Gabrielle." Her name was uttered like a sacred prayer. The bard closed her eyes and let that voice sink into the depths of her heart.
She opened her eyes to see Xena smiling at her with arms outstretched. She threw herself into her lover's embrace. She felt those long arms wrap around her, holding her safe against anything that came her way.
Gabrielle jerked awake. Her dream shattered like a thin sheet of ice. The details scattered into her subconscious. She remembered only one thing.
"Xena," she smiled.
Home had been right beside her all along.
Gabrielle growled when a knock came on her door at dawn.
"Rise and shine, my scribe," Gunni intoned happily as he cracked the door and poked his head in.
"I'll rise," the bard said rubbing her tired eyes, "but I refuse to shine."
Gunni fully entered the room and pulled the bard out of bed. "You'll shine once you see what your duty is for today."
"I wouldn't bet all your krones on that, Gunni," she yawned and stretched her tired body.
"Cynic," he smiled at his charge. "Be ready to do your duty in ten minutes."
Gabrielle could only grunt as the priest exited the room, whistling a happy tune.
After rushing to make herself presentable, Gabrielle fumbled with her scroll and parchment as she hurried after Gunni. She was concentrating so hard on keep from dropping her materials that she ran right into the cloth covered wall that was Gunni's broad shouldered back. She lost her balance and landed hard on her back, her quill and scrolls clattering loudly on the sanctuary floor.
Gunni gave a loud "oomph" as the bard connected with his back. He turned and extended his hand to Gabrielle. "Get up, child, there's someone here I want you to meet."
She took Gunni's hand but was unable to move. Her heart froze in her chest as her eyes focused on a pair of pristine boots. She slowly trailed her eyes up the legs before her to take in the regal robes,
and Roman regalia that the man wore. When her eyes got to the face of the man before her she thought she would certainly faint.
"Caesar," she gasped.
"Gabrielle, it's good to see you," the Roman emperor gave her his most winning smile.
Gunni's jawed dropped. He looked down at his scribe whose grip on his hand had tightened, then snapped his head back to gape at the handsome ruler. "You ... you know Gabrielle?" he stammered.
"Know her?" Ceasar raised his eyebrows and chuckled at the holy man. "She's one of the reasons why I'm here. Now, Gabrielle, why don't you tell me where I can find the other reason why I'm here?"
The bard finally found her feet and slowly stood with Gunni's assistance.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said through clenched teeth.
Caesar pushed the stunned priest out of the way with one hand as he closed the space between himself and the bard.
"Oh, I think you do," he bent down to come nose to nose with the bard. "And you'll tell me soon enough, or you'll die."
With a slight motion of his hand, two Roman guards were at either side of Gabrielle. "Take her to the town square. The people of Gudvargen need to learn a thing or two about their friend Gabrielle."
Gunni finally found his voice as the guards began to march Gabrielle out of the temple.
"What's going on here! What are you doing with my scribe!" he demanded, only to regret his strong words as the iron fist of Caesar closed around his throat.
"You'll find out soon enough, my friend," Caesar snarled. "I do trust everything else is going according to plan. I want to see what my money is buying here."
"Yes," Gunni gasped, desperately trying to pry the unyielding fingers from his throat. "The berserkers are ready for you."
Gunni took big gulps of air as Caesar released him. "Good. I'll have a look at them after I've dealt with your scribe."
The commotion in the public square soon brought out a crowd of curious onlookers. Several gasped to see a familiar face in front of the dais, her arms held securely by two Roman guards. "Isn't that Gabrielle?" someone turned to ask another, who nodded that, indeed, it was the
woman who they had so recently accepted as one of their own. "What's going on?" another wanted to know. There were shrugs from those gathered around the questioner.
A blond head could be seen making its way to the front of the crowd. As the last two people parted in front of her, Panacea's heart sank at the sight. The fabled Roman ruler, followed by several of his lieutenants, strode confidently into the square. Gunni breathed heavily as he ran to catch up to the retinue.
"Caesar," she whispered, a desperate tear coming to her eye. She remembered Xena's words. "All is lost." She stood rooted to the spot, unable to tear her eyes away from Gabrielle. She made eye contact with her friend. The bard smiled slightly at the older woman. She then steeled her expression to one of defiance and turned to face Caesar who now looked down on her from the dais.
"Good people of Gudvargen," Caesar spoke as he swept his hand majestically over the crowd. "I'm sure you all know Gabrielle. She's been among you now for some time, living as one of you, eating as one of you, sleeping as one of you, praying as one of you. Well, I am here to tell you, she is not one of you."
A murmur ran through the crowd, as people exchanged glances with one another. Panacea was paralyzed with fear for her friend and the secret Caesar was about to reveal.
"That's right," the ruler continued his speech. "You think that Gabrielle is of a proud Norse heritage just as yourselves, but she is not. I am here to tell you, good people of Gudvargen, that Gabrielle, is nothing more than a," he paused for effect, "Greek pig."
The crowd moaned in disbelief. "That can't be!" one person shouted. "How do you know?" another implored of Caesar.
"He knows because I helped defeat his army in Greece," Gabrielle found her voice.
The expression of wounded pride that passed over Caesar's face was gone in an instant, but Gabrielle saw it clear as day. She knew she had hit a nerve with Caesar.
The confirmation of her heritage, from her own lips, sent the crowd into shock. "How could you do this to us, you Greek pig!" one man yelled, then spat at Gabrielle's feet. "Death's too good for ya!" a woman screamed from the back of the crowd.
"But Balder spoke to her, and accepted her into his presence," Panacea spoke but she felt like she had stepped outside herself, her terror was so great. "Gabrielle is proof that Greeks are Balder's children, too. We've been wrong all along. The Greeks are not our slaves, they're our brothers and sisters!"
"I'll be dead before I live next to a Greek," one man asserted as those around him nodded their heads in assent. Panacea tried to speak again in defense of the slaves, but was stopped by the booming voice of Caesar.
The regal man surveyed the suddenly quiet group. "That's better. You can discuss this matter later. First, I have some business to take care of with Gabrielle."
He turned his attention to the bard. "Now, Gabrielle, I think there's some unfinished business here. I'm in need of some information that you have. Tell me, where is Xena?"
"Xena's dead," Gabrielle spat.
Caesar let out a loud laugh. "C'mon, Gabrielle, you'll have to do better than that. Xena's not dead."
"How would you know?" the bard struggled briefly against the guards.
"Because," the ruler leaned forward, "Xena and I share a special bond. I can feel her. I know she's here. Now tell me where!"
"Never," came the terse reply.
Caesar flicked his wrist slightly. One of the guards landed a solid blow to Gabrielle's stomach. She doubled over, coughing, and trying to catch her breath.
Panacea tried to run to her friend, only to be brought up short by a centurion that suddenly blocked her path.
"Where is she?" Caesar asked the question again.
"Go to Tartarus," Gabrielle said between gasps.
Gabrielle prepared for another blow as she saw Caesar move his hand again. The hard fist that connected with her jaw made her knees buckle. The bitter taste of blood filled her mouth. The guards bore her full weight now as she tried to regain her legs.
"You know I'll find her Gabrielle," Caesar shook his head. "Why put yourself through this?"
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes in hatred for the man before her.
"One more time, my friend. Tell me where I can find Xena."
"Right behind you," the bard smiled.
Caesar and his cadre of guards all turned at once. It was the distraction Gabrielle needed. She brought her bootheel down on the toes of the guard to her right. He let go of the bard as he yelped in pain and grabbed for his foot. Turning the arm held by the other guard, Gabrielle sent him off balance and threw him to the ground, where a solid kick to the head sent him into blackness.
Finding nothing behind him, Caesar again focused in front of him, only to find Gabrielle pummeling two guards. "Get her!" he cried.
Another guard approached Gabrielle, his long spear poised to skewer her. As he thrust the spear at her the bard sidestepped, and grabbed the spear with both hands, neatly using the guard's momentum to send him flipping onto his back. As he went down he released the spear. Gabrielle brought her boot down on the wood breaking off the spear's tip, turning it into the bard's weapon of choice.
Two more guards advanced on her. With lightning quick moves she jabbed one squarely in the stomach doubling him over. The other found himself on the receiving end of a staff blow to the head. He wobbled but regained his footing. Gabrielle spun around and swept the staff behind him, taking him down at the knees.
Another guard advanced, sword drawn. He growled as he brought the sword down, aiming for her head. Gabrielle used the staff to block the blow, only to hear it crack. A second swing from the guard's sword shattered the wooden rod, and forced the bard to her knees.
"Cheap Roman craftsmanship," she muttered as she ducked the guard's next swing. She rolled to avoid another blow, and tried to get to her feet. In the rush to recover, Gabrielle had not seen another soldier come up beside her. She only realized his presence when the pommel of his sword connected solidly with the side of her head. The world spun out of control as she fell back to her knees. Unable to right herself, she landed on her back in the snow. She reached a shaky hand up to
her head and stared in disbelief at the blood that covered her hand. She looked up in time to see the guard raise his sword over his head to deliver the deathblow. She tried to move but her body was suddenly as heavy as a stone.
A flash of blonde hair briefly obscured her view of the guard towering over her. She saw his sword come down, and expected to feel the pain of sharp metal as it entered her gut. Instead, she gasped as a heavy weight landed on her midsection. She desperately tried to focus on the source of the weight. A face came into view, a look of horror and pain painted on the features.
"No!" Gabrielle cried as she realized what was happening. She took the woman's face in her hands and looked down her body. The guard's sword protruded from her savior's stomach for a moment before he pulled the offending metal back out.
Gabrielle moved to cover the wound with her hands. She turned the woman onto her back and tried to stem the flow of blood that painted the surrounding snow a deep red.
"Oh, Evadne," Gabrielle sobbed. "Why?"
The slave coughed, expelling a thick mass of blood from her mouth. "What I have is yours," she gasped. "My life is all I have."
"That bastard," Gabrielle spat, "I'll kill him for this."
"No," Evadne touched Gabrielle's face lightly. "Nothing good ever comes from anger and hate. Love, Gabrielle, that's the key."
The Greek gave the bard a slight smile before she hitched with pain and expelled her final breath.
"Evadne, no," Gabrielle shook her friend and cried.
Two soldiers grabbed Gabrielle's arms and roughly pulled her to her feet.
"Enough of this!" Caesar roared. "Tell me now where Xena is, or I promise you, you're death won't be as swift."
Xena! Panacea finally knew what to do. She pushed her way back through the crowd and ran as fast as her legs could carry her.
A soldier noticed her departure and motioned to Caesar. "Should I stop her?"
Caesar narrowed his eyes as the familiar looking woman headed out of the square. "No. We'll deal with her later. As for you," he turned back to Gabrielle, "I'm waiting for an answer."
"You'll kill me no matter what," Gabrielle pulled herself erect. "I'll never tell you anything."
Caesar crossed his arms and smiled. "I've always admired your spirit, Gabrielle. It'll be a pleasure breaking it."
He opened his arms and loudly gave his command, "Crucify her!"
A cheer went up from the crowd.
The guards moved to take the bard out of the square when Caesar added, "Oh, and cut her hair. Let's see how Xena likes her beloved companion with no hair to run her fingers through."
Xena leaned the pickaxe handle against the inside of her left thigh, raising a grimy hand and wiping the ocean of sweat that poured from her forehead, stinging her eyes. The welts on her back were singing their protest with every movement, the warrior's new shift clinging to every curve of her body, stuck there by sweat and blood from the reopened wounds.
She straightened, body stiff, as her sensitive hearing caught a sound from the mouth of the cave. Xena had awakened with a strong sense of foreboding that morning, her instincts ringing off alarm bells throughout her body. The sense of doom had only been growing stronger as she labored in the mines, exhausting her already sleep-deprived body, making every swing of her axe a lesson in torture.
The sound came again, much closer this time. It was evident that the guards heard it as well. Three of them got up from their seated positions on the cave floor and went toward the entrance where the commotion sounded.
Xena's senses strained, trying to pick out the muffled words threaded between blows of axes into the hard cave walls.
"No! You can't come in here!" one of the guards shouted.
"It's forbidden!" another chimed in.
There was a sound of a scuffle and one of the guards flew backwards. "Xena!"
Panacea's voice sounded clearly from the entrance to the mines. "Xena, Caesar's here! They've got her! Xena!! Caesar has Gabrielle! Xe . . . ." Panacea's voice was cut off by a hard blow to her chest and she fell to the ground, gasping for breath.
Xena was in full movement before Panacea's first full sentence was uttered. Grabbing her pickaxe, she vaulted across the mine, flipping once and landing in front of one of the guards. Knocking him unconscious with the handle of the axe, she grabbed his drawn sword and cut the other two out of her way with vicious sweeps. She disemboweled the guard who had hit Panacea, then bent down and picked up the woman with one strong arm, thrusting her into the arms of a wide-eyed Nels. "Keep her away from the danger," Xena growled at the young guard, her eyes dark with rage.
As a group, the Amazons noticed the commotion at the entrance. Corien grabbed up her axe and thrust another one into the arms of Iolake. "Come on! We've gotta help Xena!"
The other Amazons picked up mining implements, turning them into lethal weapons as they remembered the drills Xena had taught them during their long evenings of captivity. Shouting battle cries, they waved their weapons and headed at a run toward the mine's exit, taking down any guard unfortunate enough to cross their paths.
A mighty cheer went up from the rest of the slaves as they copied the actions of the Amazon warriors. Grabbing any tool heavy enough to be useful, the women followed their benefactors out of the mine, stepping onto and over the dead guards who littered the floor of the mine with their bleeding bodies.
Xena led the charge, ululating her war cry, her sword glinting in the air as she flew across the hard packed snow, her heart filled with grief and a rage that could not be denied. Reaching down deep into her soul, she smashed the locks of the cage keeping her darkling spirit chained and let it flow freely through her veins. A feral grin split her features as the pain from her various injuries receded into the background.
Off to her right, she could see a steady stream of male slaves, bound and on their way to their deaths, walking toward her. With a quick change of direction, Xena sprinted toward the men, removing her chakram from its hidden compartment and whirling it in the direction of the grim guards. The weapon did its deadly work, killing the guards as it flew past. "Lift your arms!" Xena shouted, grabbing the chakram from the air and lining it up again.
The slaves did as they were told and when the weapon flew by again, it cut through their chains like a hot knife through butter, freeing them. Several of the men grabbed the guards' weapons. The others, armed only with their depleted strength, willingly followed the wildly grinning warrior woman toward the town.
Continued..Part 7 (Conclusion)
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